The excellent Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute has run the numbers on the state of maths education and found the state of the discipline in higher education is not good, the number of Australians starting a maths degree is less than half the OECD average. Granted it is not getting worse – but it isn’t going to better soon.
Given maths is a foundation of so many disciplines large numbers of students do not graduate innumerate – the average number of university departments maths academics service-teach is six, engineering, computer science, IT and biological, physical and earth sciences. But AMSI does not know how many undergraduates are studying maths degrees, due to some universities not completing the 2014 survey. However using Group of Eight and Innovative Research Us as a guide the attrition rate from 1st to 3rd year is high, Go8 5280 to 695 and IRU 1287 to 67.
What is starkly clear is that at for all the efforts to woo women into the discipline, at the sharp end it’s still a bloke’s game – last year just 15 per cent of PhD completers were Australian women, another 25 per cent were female internationals.
None of these numbers is about to improve, because for all the emphasis of selling maths in schools, young people aren’t buying, with Y12 advanced maths enrolments dropping for 20 years. The figure for males is now around 14 per cent and 6 per cent for females. And what does not interest students at school is hardly likely to appeal at university. Universities appear to acquiesce in this. According to AMSI less than 15 per cent of universities require intermediate maths or better as a pre-req for science or commerce, the same for 41 per cent of engineering courses. CMM suspects a fair swag of the supply teaching university maths lecturers do is getting students up to a point where they can cope with first year subjects.
The good news is that the quality of maths teaching in schools has improved substantially over the last few years. Nearly three quarters of Year 11 and 12 maths teachers now have three years of tertiary education in maths, compared to 64 per cent in 2010. But qualified teachers without many kids to teach does not get us far.